No. 1 Duke ventured into an opponent’s arena for the first time and found confidence.
Correction. Duke found more confidence.
Already accomplished with four wins over teams currently ranked in the top 25, Duke discovered even more ways to win while whipping Wake Forest, 87-65 Tuesday night at Joel Coliseum.
One was Zion Williamson’s 3-point shooting, an area that heretofore looked like something he shouldn’t attempt.
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Another included signs of life from Cam Reddish, who hit enough shots to show he’s more than he’s shown while struggling with his shot for the last month.
Though none of Duke’s four freshmen starters had played a true road game in their careers, the Duke program had lost its last seven ACC road games while ranked No. 1 in the country. But this Duke team (13-1, 2-0 in ACC), especially its freshmen, reveled in its ability to change momentum and create its own energy with solid play.
“Tonight was four first road game,” Duke freshman point guard Tre Jones said. “Not the most live crowd but we were able to bring that energy in the second half.”
Speaking of that first road game, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had some pointed comments for any criticism that may have arisen about his annual practice of not scheduling non-conference games on opponents’ home courts. One voter on the Associated Press’ 65-person panel of voters for the top 25 has refused to include the Blue Devils on his ballot until they played a true road game.
“What’s the difference when you play….to me, our schedule, we play really good teams,” Krzyzewski said. “That’s the key thing. We’re trying to get ready for March, so where do you get a chance to play in huge neutral arenas against outstanding nonconference teams? You don’t do it during conference. So that’s our plan, whether we’re first, last or whatever. What the hell does that mean? What importance, in world events, does that have? I don’t get it, but it’s something we didn’t do, so then it becomes ‘you’re a bad guy because you haven’t done it.’ We’re not as good a team because we haven’t done it. It’s ludicrous. When I see stuff like that, it cheapens that person’s knowledge of the game. Come on, man. We come up with a top-10 schedule every year.”
Against a Wake Forest team (7-7, 0-2) that’s already lost home games to Houston Baptist and Gardner-Webb, Duke wasn’t able to build a lead as large as six points until the final minutes of the first half. After leading 42-34 at halftime, the Blue Devils broke the game open with a 10-3 run over the first 1:38 of the second half.
“I thought RJ (Barrett) really asserted himself at the beginning of the second half,” Krzyzewski said. “RJ and Zion (Williamson) were terrific together and I thought Tre was his normal solid self.”
Williamson scored 30 points with 10 rebounds and five assists. More on that in a moment. Barrett scored 21 with seven assists, tying him with Jones for the team lead on the night.
Duke hit 17 of 22 shots inside the 3-point line in the second half and rolled to the easy win.
Here’s a closer look at three things that stood out for Duke on Tuesday night:
Williamson’s 3-point shooting
The hulking 6-7, 285-pound freshman entered the night having made 4 of 21 3-pointers this season. But he’s been working on the shot, spending extra time after practice with Duke assistant coach Nate James seeking improvement.
“I get frustrated when I miss two or three in a row,” Williamson said. “He’ll say to just take the next shot. The next shot is your shot.”
He hit his first attempt Tuesday night less than three minutes into the game.
With 4:13 left in the half, with Duke up 31-30, he was left wide open at the line and badly misfired. That didn’t stop him from shooting another open 3-pointer just 21 seconds later and swishing it.
“When I missed the one over the rim,” Williamson said, ‘I’ve been practicing so much that it just went out of my head and I shot the next one and it went in. My confidence is just going up.”
Williamson hit another 3-pointer in the second half, finishing 3 of 4 behind the arc on the night to greatly improve his season average.
He also showed play-making ability with his five assists. His goal is to keep defenders from getting too comfortable game-planning against him.
“Teams think I’m always trying to score so you give them a different look,” Williamson said. “They’ll guard you differently. They’ll guard you like you are going to pass. That’s what I was trying to do.”
The same goes for his 3-point shooting
“I’m going to keep improving my threes as the season goes along,” Williamson said. “I feel like I’m going to need it. If teams play off me, you can’t force the drive. You have to shoot the 3.”
A Reddish awakening?
The 6-8 freshman forward had failed to score in double figures in each of Duke’s three previous games. His shooting percentage dropped to 35.6 for the season after he made just 1 of 8 shots last Saturday against Clemson. He has more turnovers than any other Blue Devil this season.
The early moments of Tuesday’s game looked like more of the same. He turned the ball over twice and committed a foul in the first four minutes.
But something ignited Reddish four minutes later. He missed two 3-pointers only to see teammate Javin DeLaurier rebound them. Reddish completed the possession driving the baseline for a two-handed dunk.
In the first half’s final seconds, took a kick-out pass from Jones and sank an open 3-pointer giving Duke its eight-point halftime lead.
“It was real huge,” Reddish said. “We needed it as a team. I needed it for me for my confidence. It was a good look from Tre. I’m just glad it went in.”
Reddish hit four of nine shots against Wake Forest. His 10 points tied for the most he’s scored over Duke’s last five games. Perhaps it’s a sign of good things to come for him.
“When a young kid hasn’t played to the level to the level he thinks he can play at, he gets down on himself a little bit,” Krzyzewski said. “He wanted to do something before he caught the ball, and didn’t catch it strongly. When he hit the three to end the first half, it was a big shot, both for him and his confidence and for us as a team.”
Dealing with the road
Though 14,268 people filled the Joel Coliseum, the game lacked the electricity present when Duke played, and won, its marquee nonconference games at NBA arenas in Indianapolis or New York in November and December.
After failing to pull away from the Demon Deacons in the first half, Duke’s 10-3 run coming out of halftime was an example of the Blue Devils generating their own energy to take control.
They did it with aggressive drives to the basket, strong rebounding and solid defense.
“Coach talked about intensity and we had to be ready,” Jones said. “There wasn’t a lot of energy out there in the crowd so we had to bring it. To start the second half, we had guys attacking the hoop, finishing right around the hoop so that was good to see.”